The Topography of Terror in the U.S.
This morning, my husband and I decided to visit a popular exhibit called the “Topography of Terror” in Berlin, Germany. It’s located in what used to be the headquarters for the German gestapo and it “focuses on the central institutions of the SS and police during the ‘Third Reich’ and the crimes that they committed throughout Europe.” Part of the larger exhibit includes an outdoor exhibit, “Berlin 1933–1945: Between Propaganda and Terror” which details “National Socialist policy in Berlin and its consequences for the city and its population”—in short; the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich and the mass extermination of human life left in the wake of it.
As I walked through the exhibit, I am of course thinking of another topography of terror. It is a topography in which U.S. politicians and religious conservatives collude in preserving outdated eighteenth-century documents and texts even more ancient as proof that the right to own and use lethal weapons is God-given and unalienable. It is a topography that upholds and maintains systems of oppression that value some lives over others. It is a topography in which ignorance and hatred beget death and destruction while simultaneously many will continue to argue that stricter gun control laws are not the answer to quelling the thirst for violence in the United States. It is mystery to me. It will perhaps always be.
The recent massacre of LGBTQ (predominantly) people of color at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, will again raise questions, debates, fears, frustrations, and confusion resulting from what is frighteningly becoming the quotidian in the U.S.—the slaughter of human beings at the hands of persons with easy access to guns. As I read through the comments, reactions, shared stories, and lamentations of those to whom I am connected with through social media, there are a couple of things that are clearer for me. It is dangerous to fall into the usual trap of relegating this simply to an act of religious extremism (read often and almost exclusively as Islamic extremism). Reports now indicate that the shooter had ties to Islamic terrorist groups. This is one of the most pernicious elements of the peculiar U.S. topography of terror. But it is equally dangerous to pretend that religion has no role in this topography.
Some, in the important service of combating Islamophobic and racist rhetoric, have been quick to get us to look elsewhere for a cause—the root—of a hatred so all-encompassing that the value of human life is diminished to nothing. However, if we look away for too long then we will continue to be distracted and unable to see the complexity of interrelated oppressions that emerge out of the dangerous rhetoric of othering. We miss that the process of othering is political, economic, racialized, and yes, theological. And that all of these are not discrete categories of human identity neatly parsed out—one from the other.
Of course, that the person who committed these acts was Muslim, has little bearing on this—or at least, it shouldn’t. What is far more important is that this heinous act, and other heinous acts like it, can be traced back to highly dangerous thinking that have roots or rationale in religious understandings—Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist, alike. Ignoring the connection between religion and atrocious acts of violence is particularly dangerous in a place like the U.S. where the purported division between church and state continues to reveal itself for the façade that it is in the policies of its lawmakers. What’s more, a conversation that begins with, “this is not Islam” misses an opportunity.
Rational and progressive persons should be shouting, “This is Islam!” Just as much as this is Christianity, this is Judaism, this is the problem with religious thinking that has put the yoke of injustice on the shoulders of queer people, people of color, women, differently abled persons, and the poor for centuries. The world’s major religious traditions all had a hand in the deaths of 49 people at the club that night, they all had fingers on the trigger of Omar Mateen’s assault rifle when he walked into Pulse. Religious traditions that continue to debate the inclusion of diverse human sexualities, that continue to deny women the right to practice their faith by holding positions of authority and leadership, that continue to ignore the severe poverty that people must endure in while purchasing million dollar jets for their leaders—these religious traditions all contributed to an idea. This idea is one that privileges some humanity over others and is the core of processes of othering. This idea is the omphalos—the central core to the U.S. topography of terror.
I don’t mean to suggest that theologies of liberation in all of the major traditions do not exist. Nor am I attempting to argue that religion is the reason behind terrorist acts like those that took place in Orlando. It is not. And yet, all the ways—big and small—that religious organizations and their leaders continue to “talk about” or “debate” the inclusion of all human life, or those that simply continue to reject some persons, outright contribute to the idea—contribute to the topography of terror.
Several hours after the shooting in Orlando took place, my husband and I were dancing in a gay nightclub in downtown Berlin. We were doing what we always do when we are in these spaces—participating in the connectivity of queerness and the presumed safety that the gay night club has offered and for which it was historically created. Of course, that false sense of security has been shattered for us, forever.
At exactly 2 am, the owner of the club stopped the music. The lights came on and a hush came over the crowd as he turned on a microphone and began to speak. He called on us to be silent for one minute in respect for and memory of our queer brothers and sisters in Orlando, Florida. He denounced hatred and asked each of us to consider the ramifications of hate. He preached a message of love for all people that moved many of us to tears while we silently stood after he finished speaking. I wonder now, as I have continued to wonder for some time, what might happen if all religious traditions preached messages not simply of love (as many of us know and have heard for years, we have been loved, while our sins have not), but rather, messages of radical love that must by extension mean full inclusivity for all human life—an inclusiveness so profound that there would be no need for councils, conferences, discussions, or debates on which lives matter and to what degree they do. I wonder. And I hope for something different. Many of us do.